Sunday, March 27, 2016

Why Upgrading Air-Traffic Control Is Stuck in a Holding Pattern • The Federal Aviation Administration needs an overhaul: Cue the unions, airlines and lobbyists

The Wall Street Journal
March 27, 2016 5:45 p.m. ET

When major legislation to overhaul the Federal Aviation Administration, including the air-traffic control system, didn’t get enough speed to take off in recent weeks, lawmakers opted for the short-term fix. FAA funding was set to expire March 31, and Congress bumped that deadline until July 15. Although the measure prevented a traveler’s nightmare over Easter break, it hasn’t resolved the larger points of contention: how to revamp a flight map based on the Transcontinental Railroad, a regulatory scheme rooted in the New Deal, and traffic-control technology pre-dating “I Love Lucy.”

For decades aviation special interests have been in a standoff on these key questions, with political intrigue and shifting alliances reminiscent of the Corleone and Barzini families in “The Godfather.” As a lobbyist I’ve argued, at one time or another, against both extremes.

One side includes private pilots and corporate jet owners. They want to keep the long-standing model of FAA governance, funded by taxes, tacked on to each airline ticket, totaling $13.5 billion a year. But the aviation intelligentsia—think tanks, officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations and, now, most airlines—argues for turning over air-traffic control to a quasi-public nonprofit corporation. As the debate plays out, look-alike political groups—“American Travelers for Something or Other”—will take to the airwaves, each touting a high-tech, tax-free, eco-friendly cure for what ails air travel. Things are not so simple.

The FAA performs a minor miracle every day by keeping planes on 80,000 flights from running into one another. Managing change, however, isn’t the agency’s core competency. The FAA’s Kafkaesque bureaucracy is so constricting that a former administrator once privately complained that he lacked the authority to hire a secretary. Not a deputy secretary or an assistant secretary: a regular secretary to answer the phones.

The point man in Congress is Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.), chairman of the House transportation committee, who seeks “transformational change.” Mr. Shuster backs a bill to transfer air-traffic control from the FAA to a new quasi-public body. Initially it seemed as if this bold plan would go through. But now, despite bipartisan frustration with everything airline, it has been sent to the shop for repairs.

The industry association Airlines for America supports Mr. Shuster’s move, as do all the name-brand carriers except Delta. They want to govern the infrastructure that they use. For instance, it will cost millions over the next five years to equip jets with gussied-up GPS technology, required by an FAA mandate. In theory, this will allow planes to fly more precise paths, potentially saving time and fuel. But savvy airline executives, burned by decades of FAA stops and starts, worry that a government-run air-traffic control system will lack the funding and business acumen to make the most of the technology.

Previous attempts to spin off air-traffic control failed because Democrats sided with organized labor—notably, the 15,000-member National Air Traffic Controllers Association. President Reagan busted its predecessor in 1981, but the millennial controllers hired since have resurrected its political power. When federal budget sequestration in 2013 threatened the FAA with a 10% across-the-board furlough—closing air-traffic towers and cutting shifts—the union went into action. Congress, spooked by the threat of airport delays and planes circling over Chicago and New York, voted overwhelmingly to reverse the cutbacks. No FAA-related legislation gets off the ground without union clearance.

This time the union is backing privatization. Why the change of heart? The unions are afraid of future congressional budget battles, and they know they’ll get a reliable stream of funding from industry. Controllers are sick of waiting for technology and tower upgrades. And they talk to their counterparts in other countries and hear what a good deal it is. Canada and several other Western democracies have already successfully transferred their government air-traffic systems to industry control.

Those opposed to the Shuster bill include companies that fly business jets, who fear that any system controlled by the big airlines might force them to pay higher fees and wait at the back of the arrival queue at busy airports. Since corporate jets have few political friends, they rely on the muscle of the Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association, the “NRA of the Skies,” and its 400,000 passionate, mostly recreational private pilots. But the Shuster bill, in an effort to quiet AOPA’s activists, grants small planes a hall pass from new fees and airspace restrictions.

Neither side will—or should—play the safety card. Flying has never been safer. 

The last fatal U.S. airline accident was in 2009. Your chances of being killed in an airplane crash are one in nearly 100,000, according to the National Safety Council, as opposed to one in about 100 in a car crash, or one in roughly 50,000 by a bee sting. You’ll know who’s losing the air-traffic debate if one side starts to claim that the other guy’s position jeopardizes public safety.

Whatever happens, passengers are unlikely to notice. Planes will take off and land, delays (however mitigated) will persist at busy metropolitan airports, and the hidden costs for air-traffic control will be cooked into the mulligan stew of airline fares. The only other crew guaranteed to come out of this turf war unscathed: my old pals in the family business, airline lobbying.

Mr. Cohen was formerly an executive at the Regional Airline Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, and Airlines for America.

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